One small step for spontaneity…

In a recent podcast interview with my friend Mark Guay, I touched upon the myth that Improvisers are merely “winging it” and perhaps wildly unprepared.

Behind the scenes, we practice (and practice some more) a set of principles that guide us and give us a wonderful structure to navigate the ambiguity we have on stage when we are improvising.

When it comes to presentations and speeches, it is possible to over-prepare and in doing so, squash opportunities for spontaneity or connection with your audience.

If you want to add some spontaneity to your presentations, classes, or public speaking opportunities, completely throwing away a script isn’t necessary either.

Patricia Ryan Madson, Improv Guru and author of Improv Wisdom offers a spectacular tip for morphing scripted notes into an opportunity for more spontaneity:

Her advice? Turn your notes into a series of questions to answer. For example, your notes might look like this: 

1) Why am I here today?

2) What is the learning objective?

3) What am I most excited to share with you?

This small change still gives you the comfort and clarity that comes with a structure to fall back on, while also allowing room for a conversational, breathable, and perhaps more empathetic approach. Try this out and let me know how it goes!

Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

What’s the drill – February 20: A creative confidence booster

According to Tom Kelley of IDEO, a fear of being judged is the number-one reason why we’re not more creative.

It’s not due to a lack of ability…this is a matter of creative confidence.

We all have the natural ability to come up with novel ideas (yes yes, even you shaking your head in the back of the room). But not everyone has the courage to act on these ideas.

What if we did? How could increasing our creative confidence change our self-image and our capacity to have influence on the world?

Kelley’s mission to boost (nay, rocket fuel) the creative confidence of others is one I find myself equally passionate about.

Unlocking your creative potential can start with a simple re-frame of how you present your creative ideas. Here’s an example straight from Professor William Duggan at Columbia Business School:

When we present ideas we often end by asking the age-old question, “so what do you think?”. A useful question, yes, but one that can open the door for negative feedback and instant confidence deflation.

What if instead we simply said, “anything to add to my idea?”.

Presented in this way, we’re immediately signaling that there is room for the initial idea to expand. We still expect and desire honest feedback, but with a slight re-frame we are boosting collaboration, and hopefully over time, creative self-efficacy.

What facilitators can learn from Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show debut

Last night as I watched Jimmy Fallon make his debut as new host of The Tonight show, I was struck by the ease, comfort, and safety that Fallon exhibited as he welcomed a presumably new audience to his show.

It was akin to the skill a great facilitator utilizes when beginning a new learning experience with his or her participants.

Though these two roles are inherently different, and stylistic differences are what help make both jobs a real art form, there are fundamental choices Fallon made that educators, speakers, presenters, and facilitators can absolutely learn from:

Fallon helped create psychologically safety and established a dialogue with his audience in these 2 ways:

  • He made his thinking visible – Strong facilitators know how to engage adult learners by showing them the learning path and extravert-ing their thinking. Fallon told us the basic structure of his show, how long his monologue would be, and even where he’d stand when he delivered the opening set of jokes. Though it seemed like a small gesture, it worked to set a new routine and let the audience know what they could expect each night, and how they would get there.
  • Auto-biographical disclosure – This is perhaps the most impressive technique Fallon utilized, and the most direct application to what we do as facilitators. Fallon spent several minutes at the top of his show, introducing himself, his background, his band and his announcer to bring people into the experience, add authenticity and personalization, and put new viewers at ease. As Dr. Stephen Brookfield theorizes, the more an educator or facilitator can use appropriate autobiographical disclosure, the quicker you can bring adults into ‘the learning’. For example, in a class on adult learning a facilitator can use autobiographical disclosure to briefly talk about his or her experience as a learner and how its framed his or her approach. By telling the story of his own history of watching and admiring The Tonight Show, Fallon also exhibited experiential credibility, by letting the audience know that the experiences (and perhaps new-ness) he dealt with are similar if not the same.

Journalists, bloggers and critics are praising Fallon for these specific, ‘smart’ choices — but they don’t need to be reserved for talk show hosts. Think about the last time you felt “safe” in a new learning environment. Chances are your facilitator exhibited some, if not all of these same techniques.

The power of re-framing

Ask someone if they want to learn how to be an Improviser and you may not see too many hands get raised. It is down-right scary for many people and we can spend a lot of time de-bunking the myth of what Improv is or is not.

Ask someone if they want to learn how to think on their feet, communicate more effectively, and heighten their listening skills and chances are their reaction will change. Hands go up because the connection to every-day life is more tangible.

Sometimes, we need to re-frame our question.

If we focus too much on Improv, it’s common for feedback from sessions to land in the Level-1 reaction stage, “it was fun”… etc. Fun is great, but the stronger path towards application and learning transfer is to focus on the result of what these tools can achieve and to practice them right there in the room.

So, what questions are you asking to prompt deeper learning? How are you framing learning initiatives that get to the root of what people will walk away with as opposed to focusing on the tool itself?

On Michael Bay, and finding the problem before the solution

By now you’ve probably had your fill of social media posts about Michael Bay’s, shall we say, “issue” at CES last week. Allow me just one more viewpoint.

In the days that followed the “issue”, many people noted Bay’s seeming inability to Improvise. And, friends reached out to me to say much of the same and to suggest he take an Improv class so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again.

Not so fast. 

While I would love it if Michael Bay took an Improv class, I paused at their reaction.

Instinctively it might seem as though Michael Bay doesn’t know how to Improvise and that learning how to would solve the problem.

The same suggestion could be made for other skills like Mindfulness, for example. We could pitch a myriad of solutions to him. But we can’t be sure they will actually help.

We can’t pitch a solution without first finding the problem.  

My knee-jerk assumption used to also be, “Improv will fix this”. But I’ve learned to check some of those assumptions at the door.

As learning and organizational development professionals we need to understand and find the underlying problem, and not just treat the symptom.

A symptom of the larger problem in this particular case might be that Bay can’t Improvise. But, what’s the problem? We can’t be so sure without testing some assumptions and asking more questions.

By not doing so, and simply solving for the symptoms and not the larger issue we’re stopping short of what this work is capable of.

The Role of Educator as Storyteller

The role of storytellers and educators (who are masters at storytelling) isn’t all that different: help your audience see that they are the heroes of the story you are telling, the change initiative you are working on, or the learning program you are facilitating.

Leave space for the audience to be a big part of the narrative, so that they can see themselves in it,  believe in it, and themselves.

The best facilitators, professors, and change practitioners  I’ve seen can tell great stories, but they always find a way to point out the audience / client / learner as the hero in the story.

“It’s not me, it’s you”.

The more we can help others see and feel that, the better equipped others will be to craft more powerful stories and have the confidence to go after the challenges, opportunities, and allies that they need for each chapter of their narrative (or, lives).

Learning and teaching as art: The best, most inspiring example of this I’ve seen recently was as a student in Professor William Duggan’s class at Columbia Business School. All semester long we studied the hero’s journey of ‘famous’ businessmen and women, military leaders and cultural icons.

We were inspired by them but their stories of personal and professional triumph never felt out of reach. Their stories were not fairy tales.

We can study and learn from the quests, obstacles, and successes and failures of others and their stories – but none will be as powerful as putting ourselves and those we help in the driver’s seat of their own hero’s journey.

 

What’s the drill: May 3 – Back to the basics

Ah, just when you think you’ve become an Improvisation Jedi  a challenge emerges to test your will, your word, and the ability to make the conscious unconscious.

Enter, the group project.

Time and time again I’m reminded just how important the skills of an Improviser are, how much practice it takes to apply these behaviors on and off-stage and the reward for doing so.

Sometimes, we need a re-set or a re-boot to wake us up and remind us that these behaviors sometimes hide off-stage when things like stress, the need for control, deadlines, and “being right” want the spotlight for the quick ego boost they may provide.

Ah, silly person. No. These aren’t the rewards that count. It’s the reward that comes from being a team player that we desire most.

Be the kind of Improviser/group project member people want on their team… because you make them better.

So, how do we do that?

1. Notice More it is my obligation to notice, accept, and use every offer/idea that comes my way. We only notice the offers if we are listening and paying attention

2. Start with agreement — Because I believe everything my partner says is fascinating and even, genius — it is my obligation to notice their offer and start with a place of “yes”. To do this well, I need to withhold judgement and blocking in favor of more acceptance.

3. Build instead of tear down – “yes, and” the heck out of their idea.  Two heads are better than one. By building on their initial idea instead of simply sticking to my own I help make my partner look good…great, even!

What truly happens when we enact these guidelines and put them into practice every day is that we allow ourselves and our team-mates to be changed. It’s what happens when we notice, accept, and build more often. We’re in our own head less, and experiencing more.

And if we fail at this today, there is always tomorrow.